Edward Tufte: Presenting Data and Information

I had a chance to attend an Edward Tufte class this past week and it truly was a pleasure. He has published a number of beautiful books on presentation and the visualization of data. So, it was quite a treat to sit in on a presentation by someone that teaches about giving presentations for a living. The class was engaging, full of content, and certainly left me with a sense of excitement.

the class

One big take away for me was that clutter and the sense of being overwhelmed by data is not an attribute of too much information, but rather a consequence of poor design. How many times have you looked at an information dashboard or a chart in a meeting only to get a headache from trying to grasp what was trying to be communicated? But yet we are capable of navigating and internalizing large amount of information if it is properly displayed and explained; those are the truly elegant presentational designs.

The class covers the basic principles you would want to follow to present your data in such a way to tell a story — a persuasive one. Things like how we can layout and present data to facilitate the basic intellectual process that one goes through when considering and weighing a proposal or story. I went into the class thinking I would learn some better ways to visualize and display complex datasets. I think I have some better ideas in this area, but only as a result of the bigger insight I walked away with on how to make a better presentation.

The other majorly cool bonus was being less than a foot away from a 1st edition Galileo printing. This along with an early printing of Euclid’s helped demonstrate the power of “breaking out of flatspace” by bringing something physical into a meeting.

bringing it home

So after all this excitement I went home and tried to look for ways to integrate Tufte’s design principles into my own presentations and reports. Edward Tufte’s website has a rich forum called Ask E.T., which contains information about presentation in a number of areas including project management. One Ask E.T. thread lead me to a project on Google Code that contains a Tufte-inspired LaTeX layout.

I expect to play around with some of these designs and see how I might better polish my own reports.